The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has hogged the international spotlight for the past few months. For China, the bad press the Biden administration got for effectively allowing the Taliban to retake power has been a welcome distraction from another grim situation in the remote northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang.
In the past few weeks, however, allegations that China is committing massive human-rights abuses and even genocide against the Uighurs in Xinjiang have begun to reclaim international attention. On Monday, the U.N. human-rights chief announced that her office has been unable to obtain access to the region but is assembling a report on the allegations based on information obtained through other means. Last week, a coalition of human-rights groups issued a joint letter to major international broadcasters, including NBC, urging them not to cover the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing to protest China’s abuses against the Uighurs and other minorities. And meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has stepped up efforts to intercept imported goods made using forced labor, specifically targeting Chinese cotton that is widely suspected to be grown in Xinjiang by Uighurs in forced-labor camps.
Despite the growing attention to the alleged atrocities in Xinjiang, the situation there remains largely opaque to the American public. That’s partly because China has kept a tight grip on the flow of information and muddied the waters with its own propaganda but also because it’s a complex conflict with a lot of history in a little-known part of the world. Here’s what you need to know.
Who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs are the predominant ethnic group in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. Over 12 million Uighurs live in China, mostly in Xinjiang, with smaller communities in Kazakhstan, Turkey, and other countries. Uighurs primarily practice Sunni Islam.
The history of the Uighurs in Xinjiang is contested between Uighur and Chinese scholars. The Uighurs have lived in the Tarim Basin on the edges of the Taklamakan Desert for over a millennium. Some Uighur historians and activists claim they have been present there for thousands of years and are descended from the ancient inhabitants of the region, whereas Chinese historians contend that the people now known as Uighurs migrated there only in the ninth century. The Uighur Khaganate ruled over a vast swath of modern-day Xinjiang, Mongolia, Manchuria, and the surrounding areas in the eighth and ninth centuries; the region was later conquered by the Mongol Empire, and the Uighurs were gradually converted to Islam over the centuries that followed.
China first gained control over the Tarim Basin during the Han dynasty in the second century B.C., and again during the Tang dynasty in the early Middle Ages. Modern China considers this to be evidence that the region has belonged to China since before the Uighurs were present there. China finally conquered the present-day Xinjiang region during the Qing dynasty in the mid-18th century. Since then, the Uighurs and other non-Chinese peoples of the country’s western frontier have continually pressed for independence and founded a series of short-lived breakaway republics in the late-19th and early-to-mid-20th centuries.
What is the Xinjiang conflict?
The Xinjiang conflict has its roots in China’s efforts to consolidate control over the region throughout the 20th century. During the Mao era, China restricted the religious and cultural freedoms of the Uigurs while encouraging the mass migration of Han Chinese into what was known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region from the 1950s through the 1970s. According to China’s 2020 census, Han Chinese make up 42 percent of Xinjiang’s population and Uighurs nearly 45 percent. In the past decade, nearly 2 million Han Chinese have migrated into the region. Beijing claims it is no longer deliberately altering the demographic makeup of Xinjiang, but the recent migrations are still suspected to be part of a policy of Sinicization to dilute the ethnic and religious character of the region and stifle separatism.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union supported Uighur separatists in Xinjiang as part of its hegemonic rivalry with China in Central Asia. In the post–Cold War era, Uighur separatism took on an increasingly Islamist tenor. The Turkistan Islamic Party is an Islamic extremist group formed in 1989 that seeks to overthrow Chinese rule in Xinjiang and replace it with the independent Islamic state of East Turkestan. The TIP came to prominence amid the Baren Township conflict in April 1990, in which militants clashed with Chinese police and soldiers. This event is often described as the spark that set off the ongoing Xinjiang conflict. Since the 1990s, Uighur separatists have continually carried out bus bombings, knife attacks, and other terrorist acts in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.
After Xi Jinping became president of China in 2013, Beijing began cracking down more aggressively on separatism among Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the country. Xi’s heavy-handed campaign against separatism, part of his broader totalitarian ambitions, has culminated in the actions China is taking today against the Uighurs.
What is China doing to the Uighurs in Xinjiang now?
In 2018, a U.N. human-rights panel reported that China had detained over 1 million Uighurs, along with other Muslim minorities, in hundreds of internment camps in Xinjiang since 2017. Satellite evidence has shown that the network of camps has grown continuously since then. In the camps, survivors have reported, detainees are indoctrinated with Communist political propaganda and forced to chant slogans praising Xi. They are subjected to torture, including via such methods as waterboarding, as well as sexual abuse. They are forced to renounce Islam, eat pork, and drink alcohol, and they are surveilled around the clock to ensure that they do not pray. The detainees often have not been charged with any crime and have no recourse to contest their detention. They are not allowed contact with their families, and many detainees simply disappear. China has also pressured other nations to deport Uighurs who have fled the country and sought refuge abroad; they often disappear immediately after returning to China.
Meanwhile, cultural and religious sites throughout Xinjiang are being destroyed at a prolific rate. A report last year from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a key source of data on China’s persecution of the Uighurs, found that fewer than 15,000 mosques remained standing in the region, compared with the government’s official count of 24,000, while more than half of those remaining have been damaged. In addition, about half of the region’s cultural-heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed, including ancient pilgrimage sites.
China is also reportedly using forced labor in Xinjiang, compelling Uighurs inside and outside the camps to pick cotton and manufacture textiles and other products for little or no pay. Beijing has given subsidies to Chinese companies to move to Xinjiang or employ Muslim minority workers in other parts of the country: More than 80,000 Uighurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work at factories throughout China between 2017 and 2019, many of them from internment camps. These workers toil under inhumane conditions and live in segregated dormitories where they are subjected to continued political indoctrination and forced to learn Mandarin. They are not allowed to leave. These forced-labor factories have fed into the supply chains of major multinational corporations, including Amazon, Apple, and a variety of apparel and automobile brands.
Meanwhile, China has expanded the reach of its technological surveillance state to a truly Orwellian extent in Xinjiang. Uighur citizens’ activities are monitored by a vast infrastructure of checkpoints and cameras, and police even use a mobile platform to keep track of everything from residents’ social interactions to their use of electricity and gasoline. Chinese tech companies have tested facial-recognition software that can detect people’s ethnicity and send “Uighur alerts” to authorities.
Another disturbing revelation to emerge last year was that China has been using forced birth control, abortion, and sterilization to cut birth rates among Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Women are subjected to regular pregnancy checks, forced to have intrauterine devices inserted, and threatened with huge fines or detention if they have too many children. As a result of these policies, birth rates in the Uighur regions of Hotan and Kashgar fell by more than 60 percent between 2015 and 2018.
How has China responded to the allegations?
Beijing denies violating Uighurs’ human rights and claims its policies in Xinjiang are reasonable and humane measures to combat Islamic extremism and separatist violence. Every report of abuses is dismissed as fabrication, slander, or “fake news” — the new favorite term of autocrats everywhere thanks to a certain former U.S. president. Initially, the Chinese government denied the existence of the internment camps, but when satellite evidence emerged of new and expanding detention centers, it changed its tune and claimed they were counter-extremist “reeducation” camps or “vocational education” centers. In the official narrative, Chinese authorities are merely trying to combat Islamic fundamentalism and improve the economic mobility of the impoverished Uighurs.
China defends itself against the allegations with false equivalencies and whataboutism. For instance, the government claims its population-control policy in Xinjiang is simply intended to equalize the rights of Han Chinese and ethnic minorities, who were subjected to less-stringent rules under the country’s now-defunct “one child” policy. Xi has rolled back many of the entitlements once enjoyed by China’s recognized ethnic minorities while expanding certain rights for Han Chinese. On paper, the current policy may look equitable, but in practice, observers see it as a means of shrinking the Uighur population to make it easier to control. Similarly, Beijing defends its surveillance practices by arguing that they are not discriminatory and that China uses surveillance technology to uphold public safety in the same way the U.S. and European countries do.
China also justifies its actions against the Uighurs by framing them as part of the war on terrorism. Salafism, a fundamentalist strain of Islam that underpins many Islamic extremist groups, has made inroads in China’s Muslim communities over the past decade, and, like western governments, China often conflates this extreme ideology with Islam in general. Islamist Uighur organizations such as the TIP set up camp in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s and formed ties to Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups; “East Turkestan” has become one of the fronts in the global jihadist movement. This jihadist connection has enabled China to depict any desire for autonomy on the part of the Uighurs as a terrorist threat akin to that posed by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. One of the reasons China is stepping in to provide aid and investment in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal is to enlist the Taliban’s cooperation in preventing the TIP and other Xinjiang-focused extremist groups from establishing new bases there.
For the most part, however, China’s strategy has been to deny and obfuscate all the allegations while making it extremely difficult for independent journalists or investigators to report from inside Xinjiang. By controlling the flow of information, Beijing can muddy the waters enough for a measure of plausible deniability. Looking at all the evidence, a neutral observer would likely conclude that China is violating international human-rights law and committing serious crimes, possibly including genocide. But, of course, in the geopolitical realm, there are no neutral observers: China (and other countries with their own reasons to take its side) can always cast doubt on any evidence and claim the accusations are political — because, in some sense, they always are.
How has the international community responded?
Taken together, these allegations suggest that China’s actions against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are violations of international human-rights law, potentially rising to the level of crimes against humanity and even genocide. The U.N. Human Rights Council, individual countries, and international organizations have been putting pressure on China over Xinjiang since 2019 and calling on Beijing to allow U.N. inspectors into the region to investigate.
In October 2020, Germany issued a joint statement on behalf of 39 U.N. member states condemning the “increasing number of reports of gross human-rights violations” in Xinjiang, including “severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and the freedoms of movement, association, and expression as well as on Uighur culture.” The U.S. signed on to this statement, along with the U.K., France, Japan, and other large democracies.
At the same time, Cuba issued an opposing statement on behalf of 45 countries “supporting China’s counterterrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang.” However, the balance of world opinion has appeared to be shifting against China, with 16 countries signing on to the statement of condemnation that had declined to sign a similar statement in 2019 and six fewer signing the statement of support.
So far, the world has been reluctant to go much further than condemning China’s actions. A group of Uighur activists lodged a complaint against China at the International Criminal Court last year, but in December the court declined to prosecute; China (like the U.S.) is not a signatory to the ICC’s establishing treaty, so the court has no jurisdiction over actions that occur within the country’s borders. The plaintiffs had hoped to build a case on alleged crimes against Uighurs living in the ICC member states of Tajikistan and Cambodia. The court said it would keep the file open and could pursue a case pending more evidence.
In April 2021, Human Rights Watch issued an extensive report on the situation in Xinjiang, making the case that China was committing crimes against humanity.
What is the U.S. government doing?
The U.S. has been more willing than most other countries to put the “genocide” label on China’s persecution of the Uighurs. The Trump administration imposed economic and visa sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the repression and considered labeling it a “genocide” last year in response to pressure from activists and members of Congress but held off. On his last day in office in January, former secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that, in his determination, China was committing genocide and crimes against humanity. His successor, Antony Blinken, was quick to agree, confirming in his first remarks as secretary of State that he believed China’s actions constitute genocide.
A number of other countries’ legislatures have passed resolutions calling the Uighur persecution a genocide, including those of the Netherlands, Canada, and the U.K., but governments have hesitated to adopt these motions: In May, for instance, New Zealand’s government blocked a parliamentary resolution applying the genocide label. New Zealand is especially vulnerable to the threat of trade retaliation from China, but other governments are being cautious too. A designation of genocide is difficult to justify or prove: The State Department’s legal office actually concluded earlier this year that China’s actions in Xinjiang amounted to crimes against humanity but not genocide.
Governments are also reluctant to use inflammatory language that might spur Chinese retaliation or commit them to a course of action they aren’t prepared to take. After all, if you’re willing to call out something as heinous as genocide, why aren’t you doing anything to stop it? Labeling China’s behavior as genocide is ultimately a political decision, and a risky one at that, though it may well be the right call.
As it happens, the U.S. and its allies are doing something, though it is not yet having much effect. The Biden administration issued additional sanctions on Chinese officials in March in a coordinated effort with the U.K., the E.U., and Canada. There are other things the administration could do, such as prioritizing Uighurs for asylum and resettlement in the U.S. But forcing China to change, if that is even possible, will require a massive, concerted campaign of diplomatic pressure and sanctions that includes China’s largest trading partners.
Why are businesses facing calls to take action?
The State Department has warned that companies with even indirect investments or supply-chain connections in Xinjiang are at high risk for violating U.S. law. This legal risk, along with rising consumer awareness, is putting pressure on major apparel brands to eliminate Xinjiang cotton from their supply chains. This is no easy task, as China produces 20 percent of the global cotton supply, and 85 percent of that is grown in Xinjiang, including some of the highest-quality cotton in the world. The campaign by Customs and Border Protection to crack down on imports made with forced labor is beginning to have an impact, but its enforcement capabilities remain limited, and plenty of other countries are still buying Xinjiang cotton — though the E.U., Australia, and some other major importers are considering U.S.-style laws authorizing the seizure of goods produced using forced labor.
Multinational companies also don’t want to talk too loudly about Chinese human-rights abuses since many depend on China as not only a supplier but a consumer. One or two companies, even big ones, won’t make a big enough difference — and companies won’t act alone if that means their competitors will have access to the Chinese market while they don’t. Until a critical mass of the world’s largest businesses can credibly threaten to pull out of China, we’re unlikely to see the kind of economic pressure that would influence its behavior.